back to Table Of Contents

May Day, 2002

Beltane, more commonly known these days as May Day, is a rambunctious celebration if the virility and vitality of life.  At this time of year, nature is hell-bent on procreation.  Even on a chilly overcast day like today the air is scented with apple blossom.  The pheasant who announces his presence each morning in our field ("honk--honk" flap-flap-flap) is quite dapper these days: red-brown feather coat at its brightest.  Last year we glimpsed him, his gray-brown missus, and their plain youngling marching up our path to the forest.  Why must the male always announces his presence?  Hardly a survival technique, but perhaps a territorial one.

The forest is rampant with new growth.  Stinging nettles crowd like cheering parade-goers in our clearings.  Chickweed wriggles across my partially constructed labyrinth.  Luckily I'm hungry for the iron-rich green of the nettles, the herby snippets of the chickweed.  The forest is now a place where I can forage.  Each season on the island I learn a little more  -- that Western hemlock needles brewed as a tea makes for a fine source of vitamin C.  That  the roots of licorice fern -- the pretty ferns that grow high up on tree branches of big leaf maple taste true to their name -- like licorice.  Each bit of the forest I consume brings me further into the green.  The green grows within me with each leaf, each berry, each root.

The other day I discovered a photo (shown above) of a green man, one I took at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Novato, California more than ten years ago.  As our festival community celebrated May Day today (photos appear on the next two pages), with the weaving of the May Pole, music, a cake walk accompanied by a fiddler and by violin and flute by some of the kids -- a cake walk in which all the winners generously shared their cakes (yum!) -- I thought of how May Day is a festival of the Green Man.   The Green Man, who represents the mysterious intelligence ofthe natural world, and who can be rambunctious, or at times, (to humans "outside the green") sinister.  He is the regenerative spirit, and in the autumn its destructive one.   He is the Green Knight who challenged King Arthur and his court to a deadly beheading game.  He is also the gregarious host Lord Bertilak, who generously served--and tested--Sir Gawain, a young knight from the Court and the only man brave enough to take up the Green Knight's challenge.  It seems to me that our species is currently being tested.  We have blithely severed the head of the Green Man.  Are we honorable and brave enough to submit to the challenge, to "offer our heads" in return-- that part of us that dwells in an industrial-corporate court, that believes it can plunder the green without consequence?

Or perhaps the challenge is to become green men and green women ourselves, to take up the head of the earth and join (or rejoin) with its weaving --to become the consciousness of this
planet and its many cycles and beings.

Below is a "reprint" of an essay I wrote several  years ago - my early encounter with the Green Man.

Tales, Harps, and a Mask of Leaves

by Jane Valencia
copyright (c) 1994

A favorite children's novel led me to Wales. It was The Grey King, the fourth book in Susan Cooper's acclaimed The Dark is Rising fantasy series. In this book, the protagonist, Will, one of the immortal Old Ones, travels to mid-Wales to find a gold harp and use it to wake the Six Sleepers from Arthurian legend. My first journey to Wales was to seek out the places described in the book, and to seek out harps. I didn't play harp at the time, but I was fascinated by them - thanks to The Grey King. However, I never found any harps in Wales. The tavern listed in my guidebook that supposedly had a harpist one day a week was closed. The concert in Aberystwyth, where I was staying, that featured a triple harpist had taken place two days before my arrival. No harps during that first trip, nor a few years later, when I was there as a student at the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth, studying medieval Welsh language and literature - in particular, the poetry of the ancient harpers, Aneirin and Taliesin.

But I did find the Green Man.

One morning, while hiking up a silver-green hill just south of Aberystwyth, I came across a fox. I'd never seen a fox in the wild before, and this one, dazzling with color - stunned me. He stood there, his coat rich-red, his ears and tail shining white. I couldn't help but be reminded of a line of description in the medieval Welsh tale, Pwyll Pendeuic Dyved: the hunting hounds of Arawn - a lord of the Otherworld - are described as having coats shining white, and ears gleaming red - the inverse of the fox's colors. And as their white coats shone, so their red ears gleamed . The fox and I stared at each other for a moment. Then he turned and disappeared.

The hill where I saw the fox, just south of Aberystwyth in mid-Wales

As I walked slowly down the slope, I felt as if I - like Pwyll of the tale - had been led into the Otherworld. Instead of hunting hounds, my guide had been a rich-red fox. There on a windswept hill scattered with slender trees arching toward the morning sky, the woods quiet with secrets, I was reminded of two lords of the Otherworld: Arawn, the lord whose hounds led Pwyll into the Otherworld in pursuit of a white stag. And of Sir Bertilak, who was also the Green Knight, from the medieval English tale, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Both Arawn and Sir Bertilak were masters of the forest and hunters. Both challenged the honor and bravery of the hero. Surely Arawn and the Green Knight were aspects of the same figure....Returning to town I began some research, hoping to find out who this figure was. That's when I discovered the Green Man, an archetype I've been fascinated with ever since.

In art and sculpture the Green Man is a composite image - a face formed out of a mask of leaves, or a face disgorging or devouring leaves and vines. He is an ancient figure, linked with the Great Goddess as son, lover, and guardian. Whether as a 'foliate head' carved in a European Gothic cathedral, or as a giant who tests the hero, challenging him to impossible tasks, the Green Man is the intelligence within the dark forest, in the tree of life. He represents irrepressible life, renewal and rebirth, inspiration; he is the guardian and revealer of the mysteries of Nature, and he is the union of humanity and the natural world.

dawn and the sea
The pink of dawn is reflected in the sea - near Coos Bay, Oregon

When my harp partner Deb Knodel and I first began to put our duo music together, Deb was spending a sabbatical in a cottage overlooking the sea on the Oregon coast. I, living, in Portland at the time, drove down to practise. It was fall, and the colors were intense: deep blues and greens of the trees and mountains, plush grays and whites of the clouds, flaming red dogwood leaves, brilliant orange and yellow hand-sized maple leaves patterning the roads, pearl-pink dawns.

Deep blues and greens - a river on the way to the Oregon coast

Maple leaves

Taking breaks we'd drive down to Cape Arago, and hike amidst fir trees perched on a cliff. One tree in particular caught our imagination. Fallen long ago, its roots and branches twined around each other, seeming to sketch the outline of harps. That fall, with new music all around us, of course we'd see harps in the trees. Our goal in putting our music together was to say something new - to have fun with our harps, to explore their sounds. The name we came up with for our duo was Spookytree, after that magical harp-filled tree at Cape Arago. A year later, we were recording our music at a studio in Sonoma County amidst redwoods and the gold-turning-to-brown northern California hills. What should we call our album? What was our concept? Deb and I didn't really know. But the image we kept coming back to for our album cover was an antlered leaf-face; the title, Masque.

I remember the night before recording Redlands, a piece I'd composed about my childhood summers in western Colorado. I was very nervous about it. I had the textures and mood in mind, but I'd never really been able to pull it together the way I wanted. But that night a full moon poured light onto the woods, and as we drove to the farmhouse where we were staying, a deer leaped across the road before us. It seemed a good sign. In the predawn hours I a woke to a sound I'd never heard before: a strange high-pitched barking. I realized what it was: a fox. I hadn't encountered a fox since that walk years before in Wales. Moon, deer, and fox; redwoods ranging the hills like guardians. I felt enveloped in myth. Of course I'd be able to pull Redlands together - and did. That was also the morning Deb finally came up with the title for her piece: Winter Creek , after the farm where we were staying. It perfectly suited the piece's thoughtfulness about quiet snow falling in the woods.

That's what recording our album was like for us: living out magic. We could hardly believe that we were doing something like this, something we'd never dreamed possible. And with each passing day on the project the music became deeper, richer. Deb began working on the Masque artwork, using her unique colored pencil techniques. She used the antlered leaf-face, but bordered it with redwood leaves and a Guatemalan scarf - bringing the Green Man across the ocean to California. That's what we hoped we were doing with our music - blending motifs from the two shores, having them dance together. She chose bold and luminous colors: the oak leaf mask seemed bathed in the glowing and fiery light of a dawn or twilight - impossible to say which. It was stunning - gorgeous and powerful stuff. And like the music, it seemed bigger than we were.

Green Man/Masque arwork
Deb's Masque artwork, copyright 1992.

So what happened to Spookytree and Masque? It's hard to say, really. Several people looked at the artwork, heard our duo name and shook their heads. Marketing death, they said. Better to use your own names, better to use a cover that doesn't encourage preconceptions of your music that you may not mean. In the end, rightly or wrongly, we agreed. We had become less comfortable with Spookytree as a duo name. And though we loved the Masque artwork and were still moved by it, we thought maybe now wasn't the time. Maybe we could use it later, somewhere. I think we just didn't understand how the leaf-mask - the Green Man - related to harps and to the music we were playing. It was just like my experience of searching for harps in Wales: I knew they were there. I just didn't know where to find them.

2002 Note:  In 1996  Deb & I featured the Green Man on our Forest album, and in our Forest concert performances.  Two years ago we reclaimed Spookytree as our duo name. On this island of forest and magic, how could we not use our name!  Please visit our Spookytree website!


turn page 
close book